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Wrongful Death by Police

Police officers take an oath to serve the communities they patrol. Police work can get chaotic in the heat of the moment, though. Sometimes, officers violate the rights of civilians or act negligently. These negligent acts can lead to unjustified injuries and deaths.

A law enforcement officer may face criminal charges, including homicide, if their acts lead to the death of another person.

Suppose you've suffered the loss of a loved one through an officer's negligence or misconduct. In that case, you may have a legal remedy by filing a wrongful death lawsuit. A civil lawsuit can yield damages for lost companionship, pain and suffering, and more.

The following information provides an overview of wrongful death by police claims.

Wrongful Death by Police: Introduction

It's not uncommon for people to die because of someone else's negligence or intentional act. Surviving family members can seek monetary compensation for their loss by filing a wrongful death lawsuit. Most wrongful death lawsuits are filed in state court. However, you can file a wrongful death by police claim in federal court if the police have violated your loved one's civil rights.

A city or municipality may defend claims of wrongful death on behalf of its police departments. The city might instead choose to settle the claim to minimize negative publicity.

Surviving relatives typically sue the applicable police department rather than the individual officers. The reason for this approach is that some jurisdictions extend qualified immunity to individual public employees in certain situations.

Qualified Immunity

Most states provide immunity to agencies for civil liability for personal injury or wrongful death claims from a car accident with a criminal suspect driver. However, police officers must use special care if they start a car chase.

2008 federal appeals case displays the limits of New York's qualified immunity statute. The decision grants qualified immunity to police officers only if there is no willful violation of the law. Suppose a suspect dies after an officer properly uses methods approved by the department. The officer may be personally immune to a wrongful death lawsuit in that case.

Damages and Settlement Amounts

Damages and settlement amounts vary substantially from one jurisdiction to the next. A year-long investigation of fatal police shootings in 2015 by The Washington Post found that:

  • Settlements ranged from $7,500 to $8.5 million, with a median settlement amount of $1.2 million
  • Families collected substantially more money by settling before trial
  • Families that settled after a criminal trial received $500,000 on average
  • Suits against individual officers were exceedingly rare

Jurisdictions vary in who can bring a wrongful death lawsuit and what damages can be claimed.

If the jury finds it was a wrongful death, a victim's family can recover losses for pain and suffering and loss of consortium. The family may also be able to recover damages for:

  • Medical expenses
  • Lost financial support
  • Funeral expenses/burial expenses
  • Emotional distress

Most jurisdictions also offer an option to recover punitive damages in a wrongful death case. The purpose of punitive damages is to teach people a lesson or to punish them.

Jurisdiction: State or Federal?

How do you decide whether to bring a federal versus state court case?

Plaintiffs may raise the following claims:

  • A state claim that an officer acted negligently or with malicious intent
  • A federal claim that an officer violated the plaintiff's civil rights
  • Both a state claim and a federal claim

For example, a state negligence claim may allege that an officer drove recklessly through a busy intersection in pursuit of a suspect. The claim might allege that the officer accidentally struck and killed a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

A federal claim might allege that an officer's use of excessive force violated a victim's Fourth Amendment rights. The claim might further allege that the officer's use of force led to the victim's death. Federal courts have original jurisdiction over such a case. Federal courts may also have supplemental jurisdiction over state claims.

Plaintiffs may file a federal lawsuit citing state law if the state-related claims are directly related to the federal claims. If the federal court decides there are no valid federal claims in the complaint, the complaint may get dismissed or sent to state court.

Wrongful Death Claims Against Police: Federal Court

Federal law provides another forum for wrongful death claims against the police. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a peace officer subjecting an individual to "the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" may be liable for resulting injuries.

For example, a plaintiff filed a wrongful death complaint in 2016 after a San Jose police officer shot and killed her husband.

The complaint cited several constitutional violations, including the following:

  • Fourth Amendment — Excessive Force: Plaintiff claims the shooting was "excessive and unreasonable. Especially because the decedent posed no immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury" at the time.
  • Fourth Amendment —Denial of Medical Care: Plaintiff claims the officers "knew that failure to provide timely medical treatment to decedent could result in further significant injury . . . but disregarded that serious medical need, causing decedent great bodily harm and death."
  • Municipal Liability — Inadequate Training: Plaintiff claims the "training policies of defendant city [San Jose] were not adequate to train its officers to handle the usual and recurring situations with which they must deal."

Police Misconduct and Police Brutality

A law enforcement officer's reckless firearm use can be considered police misconduct. Peace officers may use force in proportion to what is needed. This force may include deadly force if reasonable. If a police officer crosses the line into unreasonable, excessive force, that act is police brutality.

For example, a child with a toy gun resembling a legitimate firearm poses no threat to the public. If an officer doesn't know the object is a toy, the officer's decision to shoot the child could still be an act of justifiable self-defense. These issues are complex. Speak to a wrongful death attorney to explore the possibility of a wrongful death case in situations like this.

Most states require a preponderance of the evidence when determining liability in civil cases. Federal law requires a slightly higher burden of proof — clear and convincing evidence — for claims of civil rights violations. Courts often use the standard of whether specific actions are so egregiously in violation of one's civil rights that they shock the conscience.

Wrongful Death Claims in State Court

There are no grounds for a federal lawsuit if the plaintiff does not claim constitutional violations. In that case, a plaintiff must file in state court.

State court claims of wrongful death by police rest on claims of either negligence or the intentional infliction of harm.

Questions include:

  • Whether the officer was justified in fearing for their life
  • Whether the officer's actions were consistent with their training
  • Whether the officer used excessive force beyond the required force necessary by a reasonable officer in a similar situation

State claims for wrongful death by police are uncommon. They include:

Have Specific Questions About a Wrongful Death Claim Against a Police Officer? Ask a Lawyer

No amount of money can bring back a loved one. However, the family members of those negligently or maliciously killed by police may seek compensation for their loss or injury claims via a wrongful death lawsuit.

These suits are very complex and may involve more than one jurisdiction. You want to file before the statute of limitations (the time limit for bringing a case) runs out.

If you believe you have a wrongful death case, consider speaking with a local personal injury attorney or a civil rights lawyer today. An attorney will help provide legal advice and guidance for navigating a wrongful death lawsuit.

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